Vanessa R Sasson’s debut novel Yasodhara and the Buddha takes the life of Gautama Buddha, the stuff of scripture and legend, and lays out a story about love between him and his wife. And a fascinating story it is, too, about ego, love, and renunciation as love.
Behind or beside the great male spiritual leaders are great women, so we are told, although it is usually the case that their lives and deeds are often relegated to secondary importance by androcentric religious constructs put in place by those who come afterwards. For example, Jesus has two Marys (his mother and Magdalene), Muhammed has his principal wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr, and Buddha (Siddhartha) has Mahaprajapati. There are, however, many stories written about these women, and the often sparse historical records, if they exist at all, need to be fleshed out by these accounts, many of which, however, contain a great deal of imaginative fiction as well as kernels of truth. They form what Garling herself terms “a crazy quilt,” that is, numerous fragments based on what Tracy Cochran calls in her foreword “threads of instinct, intuition and common sense.” In the case of Mahaprajapati, we do not have even the kind of history which may be extracted, say, from the synoptic gospels, apocryphal writings (there is a Gospel of Mary Magdalene) or the various Islamic sources depicting Aisha as a scholar, judge and even military leader.
In his perennially wonderful (if now dated—the abridged version was issued by its author in 1922 based on the 12-volume full one) Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Sir James Frazer tells us that magic was the precursor to religion. Van Schaik uses Frazer’s analysis as an example of what has by now become the “conventional” view of the subject, although it refers largely to what Frazer called “sympathetic magic,” which van Schaik says “has dominated much of the discussion of magical practice” since the issue of The Golden Bough. It was “the first primitive stage in mankind’s attempt to understand and control the world,” as Sam van Schaik sums it up, or the belief “that things act on each other through a secret sympathy,” as Frazer himself put it.
Buddhism would undergo profound changes as it was transmitted from its origins in India east into China, in the first century CE. Terminology had to be assimilated, for one thing. And when one language is translated and assimilated into another, it is inevitable that some conceptual connections will be lost and the meaning of ideas altered. Take Zen Buddhism. In his latest book, David Hinton says that we in the West are not just once-removed from the original Zen—but twice removed. This is because the Zen we know from Japan had already lost much of the original Daoist underpinnings of Chinese Zen—known as Chan—even before the religion traveled across the Pacific to America.
These two new books from Shambhala’s excellent series Lives of the Masters introduce readers to the life and teachings of two great Buddhist innovators who lived many centuries apart, but who both contributed to the way future generations came to understand Buddhism.
The Heart Sutra, beloved by millions in East Asia for over 1,400 years, is used as solace, protection, and a gateway to another mode of thinking. Schodt realized that it could also be his entry into a world of faith.
Having recently reviewed Matty Weingast’s attractive collection of poems from the Therigatha, I was somewhat surprised to see that Shambhala had decided to reissue an newly-expanded version of Songs of the Sons and Daughters of Buddha (1996), given that the female half was already available in Weingast’s excellent and sensitively-handled new version. However, in addition to the fact that this edition includes male poets, the choice of female poets is not always identical, and of course it’s also interesting to see how different translators treat the same poems.